Understanding K-OS

On the heels of his new record, Joyful Rebellion, the complicated MC has lightened—and brightened—up.“Your rebellion is JOYFUL when it’s truly your OWN,” he says, “and not anyone else’s.”

It’s safe to say that k-os is in a good place at the beginning of 2005. And it’s no wonder, because with his second album, Joyful Rebellion, k-os has reached the top 10 on the Canadian pop charts and can be heard on hip-hop, Top-40 and college radio stations. He is supporting the album with a North America tour that brings him to Halifax on Friday. But mostly k-os is content because he’s stopped caring, at least about the things he can’t control.

“I think that getting to that point of being less analytical and less judgmental, I got to be more relaxed,” the 32-year-old MC says. “It got to a point where I couldn’t watch TV because I was like, ‘What is this?’ Now I can watch it and learn from it and say, ‘This is where things are different from the sort of things I do.’ Not right or wrong, just different.”

The old k-os might be upset if someone misconstrued his philosophy or accused him of being contradictory because of something he said in a previous interview. The new k-os has made an effort to not take it so personally. Since then, life has been a whole lot more enjoyable.

It’s not to say k-os has become complacent. He’s quick to point out that he continues to search for answers to the bigger questions in his life and continues to question his faith and where he belongs in this world.

One must understand k-os’s past to truly understand who he is today. Before k-os, there was Kheavan Brereton, growing up in a strict Jehovah’s Witness household in Trinidad and Toronto. He didn’t celebrate holidays, he wasn’t allowed to watch certain TV programs and he couldn’t attend school dances.

“It wasn’t until I was about 22 that my mother was like, ‘OK, go ahead now,’ because in her mind, the indoctrination was there,” Brereton says. “But up until I was about 21, I couldn’t do anything.”

School was an opportunity for the young Brereton to be himself and he made the most of it. He played sports, participated in student council and was basically “a class clown.”

“When I was at school, I lived a double life,” he says. “I’d come home and I’d have to conform. It was school that allowed me to know what was going on in the world. It allowed me to dip into reality.”

Meanwhile, when other kids celebrated holidays or participated in school dances, Brereton was in his basement creating music, writing poetry or absorbing the rap videos on MuchMusic. Not surprisingly, Brereton’s parents weren’t impressed when he brought home his first sampler and started making beats from his father’s records. They were afraid that Brereton had chosen a path where he wouldn’t live up to his potential.

“They were worried that I was picking something that I wouldn’t succeed at,” he says. “For my dad to see me have some sort of success, he’s ecstatic now. I can feel proud about that.”

Still deeply spiritual, Brereton admits he’s a different person now, though he carries around the guilt of choosing his own direction and not the one set out for him by his parents. In many ways, his upbringing made him the socially active rapper most people have come to know him as.

“I thought that if I get into the music industry, I have to be like this because that’s the only way I’m going to get appreciation from my parents and God,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to do music and I’m going to be this really socially conscious guy so that I don’t get in trouble from the man in the sky.’”

Joyful Rebellion continues k-os’s embrace of a new hip-hop movement, which he says began when sampling records became passé and live instrumentation found respect in hip-hop circles.

“That started a new trend and allowed for bands like The Roots to come in,” he says, not coincidentally, before a sound check for his live band in Kitchener. “Then The Roots were more hip-hop than hip-hop, because it sounds like sampled records. So then now comes D’Angelo, here comes Erykah Badu, here come The Fugees. That right there was the beginning of the revolution.”

The revolution has brought k-os respect across the country, earning him the highest chart placement ever (number seven for Rebellion) on the Canadian pop chart for a Canadian urban artist. It’s also earned him respect in the hard-to-crack United States market, where he won best international album at the influential Source Awards and toured with Grammy winners India.Arie, De La Soul and The Roots.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that k-os produces some of the catchiest hip-hop—let alone pop music—around. His last radio single “Crabbuckit” re-creates the bassline from The Cure’s “Lovecats” and Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack.” And with CanRock darling Sam Roberts making an appearance on “Dirty Water,” Joyful Rebellion has all the earmarks of an accessible crossover album, without any dilution of k-os’s message.

It’s the socially aware image k-os built for himself, however, that often led the press to jump on him when his words didn’t always follow with actions—such as his not playing enough benefit concerts.

“Everyone has an opinion about your record or your personality,” he says. “You meet someone one day and you might be upset and it’s like ‘k-os isn’t a happy guy.’ You hear these stories and it’s like, ‘Wow, all these expectations are on me,’ and if you try to fill them, you will go insane.”

As he has matured as an artist and as a person, k-os has put that insecurity behind him and decided to let the music speak for itself. His latest record is his way of saying to his parents, the media and fans that he’s his own man, for better or worse.

“‘Crabbuckit’ is a man saying, ‘I’ve grown up now, these are my beliefs. Oh yeah, this is what you told me is the truth? This is my truth,’” he says. “I think that’s why it’s reaching all different people of different ages, because people have those epiphanies at all different ages.”

“That’s what makes the underlying message of the record so joyful,” he adds. “Your rebellion is joyful when it’s truly your own and not anyone else’s.”

Despite his constant search for a higher truth, k-os has been enjoying what he calls his “second childhood,” especially while on tour with the travelling, talented circus that is his live crew.

“I’m embracing the more juvenile side of my reality, you know what I mean?” he says. “Because in my entire life, I’ve never been allowed to do that. So for me, that’s what I’m doing. But because I’m 32, I also have a wisdom, about how juvenile I can be.”

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